2019 half-year review

—— notes —— 6 mins

This is a public half-year review. It serves as a chance for me to recount what happened, what I learned and to think about what can happen next. There might also be something interesting about web design and development processes for you.

Projects

Without considering existing website maintenance or minor branding collateral, I completed seven new websites. Of those, four were repeat clients. Three were new client relationships, one of which meant the project was significantly more difficult than all other projects combined—such is the risk when forming a new relationship. The remaining new relationships were not only profitable but fun: both myself and the client came away buzzing from it, and I think the result of the work is a testimony to that relationship, which is all I can hope for. Here’s the list of completed projects:

Of these projects, I designed only two from scratch. The remainder were either rolling out interface designs from provided brand styleguides or executing provided visual designs in code. But let's be honest: to get anything translated from a design program into code requires a fair amount of design chutzpah.

Another three projects were expected to be complete within the first half of the year but are currently works-in-progress. Each has so far taken longer than expected, and all were due to assembling content. I’ll address why in the “learned” section below. Two other projects were begun and then iced. They may or may not restart next half year. This is OK. Such is freelance life. Finally, no Whale clients this year. As well as Whale clients being a bit like “betting it all on black”, having a diversity of income streams is good for my curiosity and energy.

I am the bottleneck

With a full schedule of projects, I found myself so focused on project execution that I lost my writing habit. I run my own business: from hunting to work, client communications and project management through to design and development. I subcontract some development to a trusted cohort whom I’ve been working with for 3 years now. With that amount to juggle, it’s important to choose where my energy goes. Choosing to work with people where we have a common “wavelength” is the first filter. The second filter is realising that I am the bottleneck to my business. I’m not scalable.

I understand that’s the definition of an anti-business in a nutshell, and I’m well read regards productised service offerings, specialisation and other models of scaling the modern freelancer. The thing is I’m simply not drawn to spending my time like that. If it’s a drag and I’m not into it, I’ll fail.

Instead of scaling through business models, I think I should be leveraging software opportunities, and perhaps the teams surrounding software work. So I intend to focus on finding web application projects for the second half of this year.

Work processes: things I learned

The primary obstacles within website projects, this half-year and every half-year:

  • Assembling content
  • Communication between parties
  • Initial research that constitutes the why, how and what of the project

The obstacle of assembling content is not a new phenomena: while it is my job to define and communicate project todos, it’s often only when we’re in production that the reality of the agreed scope of work kicks in for my clients, no matter how well I communicate. At this point it becomes all to easy to start thinking in terms of rushing through a checklist, which is when quality degrades. If you find yourself merely filling “content spaces” in order to complete a todo list, stop and think about what this means to the audience you’re speaking to. Achieving checklists and actually communicating are different things.

Workshop the Why and the Relationship first

The solution to project bottlenecks like this is to take the time to workshop requirements at the very start of the project. From this foundation, it’s often surprisingly easy to discover what is and is not essential to the project outcome you've defined. It always feels like a waste of time when there's an urgency to get to done — "it's just a website". But the time invested in properly defining problems is exponential

A problem well stated is a problem half solved John Dewey

Starting with workshopping your requirements is also a very good chance to get to know each other: with a good relationship in place, you’ll find the freedom to adapt to the inevitable changes that arise during the course of the project execution.

Make systems not websites

From here, it’s important to create living systems, not inert monuments. What I mean is, work on building a website platform to publish your brand, your value propositions, your content, your contact details, your help desk—in fact all your information—as a system designed as a hierarchy of your audience’s needs.

Publishing content is then a matter of thoughtful engagement with your audience—continually learning form them and iterating on your content—rather than a static bet on a one-time impact. And this is why your choice of development systems and publishing processes are as important as the resulting interface. If you create one without the other, you’re stuck. You need to have systems you can use to learn with. This is why I think it's always better to cut the scope, push to a live site faster and then keep building as you learn.

Freelancing and health

Twice this half year I caught mild to heavy colds. We had a serious monsoon season this year in far northern tropical Australia, loud rain for weeks on end that I’ve not heard since my childhood in Singapore. That combined with our children at school and my wife in a new job and I caught a proper virus that laid me low in bed for 7 days. I had wished to rewatch all of The Sopranos, just like Taleb fantasises about in Antifragile, but the last Test Match of the season was on free-to-air TV (a rare medium these days, you have to sit through ads!).

While a good virus can be cathartic because it forces you to let go, the anxiety of a project deadline quashed it this time around. Which made my recovery slower. As I told myself in my end-of-2018 review, rest and recuperation are underrated. Being laid low by a virus happens, but letting go of freelance anxieties isn’t as easy to accept. Yet when I can find the meta space to see myself operating—of which this writing fits within—then perceived necessities change into mere states of mind.

It certainly helps doing twice-weekly afternoon circuit training, but I do need to enjoy going to bed early afterwards rather than riding the high of the workout by going back into the office to work late. Youch.

Conclusion

Dear Self:

There is always more to do. But one can only do so much. Choose what to do with a longer view.

Dear Work Self:

Cut the ornamentation. Don’t make website-y websites. Instead, focus on declarative communications that allow simplicity to become sublime. Do less, better.

Dear Clients:

Let your website be a system for learning as much as for communicating.

Lastly, if you know of interesting people who have interesting ideas that require software applications that live in a web browser, please connect me. I’m a designer who codes (and my trusted cohort is a JavaScript ace).